FTF takes families up…up…and away! into the world of hot air balloons for a new point of view, whether you choose to ascend or not.
Think outside of the box and into the basket…of a balloon! A different kind of vacation can be a refreshing change from the familiar beach, ski, and camp standbys. Balloon festivals and adventures offer just enough zing to make a family trip, um, uplifting.
Balloon Festivals take place across the U.S. and abroad throughout the warmer seasons, and can be fun for all ages. Pilots from near and far gather in one central location and fly their balloons, usually in the morning or evening hours when the wind conditions are more stable. Often there’s plenty of on-ground entertainment—live music, games, fireworks shows, balloon competitions— and sometimes visitors get the opportunity to ascend into the open air, if they so dare.
History & Flight Preparation
Hot air ballooning, the oldest form of human flight technology, has been around since 1783 when the Montgolfier brothers of France invented the device, and Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes made the first manned flight.
A typical hot air balloon flight begins with the unpacking of the balloon, the basket lying on its side. The crew spreads the material across the ground and uses a gasoline-powered fan to blow outside air into the envelope (deflated balloon), which helps to partially inflate the balloon and establish its basic shape.
Then, one crewmember aims a burner flame at the “throat” of the balloon, heating the air inside, as another holds a rope tied to the apex (crown) of the envelope. The so-called “crown-man” acts as a dead weight to ensure that the balloon achieves maximum inflation (volume) before standing erect. Once the balloon is upright, the pilot and passengers climb into the basket, and when the pilot is ready for launch, more heat is directed into the envelope and the balloon lifts off gradually.
Major Balloon Festivals
New Mexico hosts one of the biggest balloon festivals; the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (888/422-7277) draws over 700 hot air and gas balloons. On most days of the 10-day event, which usually takes place in late September and early October, more than 100,000 people attend. Entertainment in the park includes different bands, children’s acts, and interactive education at the Balloon Discovery Center. There are sunrise and sunset launches, balloon races, flying events, and other competitions. Visit the Albuquerque C&VB (505/842-9918) to find out more about vacation packages timed to take advantage of this festival.
Another popular festival is Bristol, England’s International Balloon Festival (011-7966-8716), held annually in August. Balloon launches take place at sunrise and sunset beginning Thursday evening of this weekend-long festival. Live music, family games, special performances, crafts, educational exhibits, a petting zoo, and other entertainment options populate the lawns. Bristol also holds a Night Glow the first two nights, a special show where tethered balloons illuminate like giant light bulbs using their liquid gas burners, creating magical patterns against the dark night sky. The sequences are set to special music, and are followed by a finale of fireworks.
Steamboat Springs, Colorado celebrates summer with a Rainbow themed weekend in early July and most of that color comes from hot air balloons. Begun in 1980, the annual Hot Air Balloon Rodeo features balloons of various sizes and shapes competing in airborne events, such as Rodeo Roping and the Don Quixote race. Concurrenly, an even older Art in the Park Festival adds color to downtown’s West Lincoln Park and features paintings and sculptures, handmade jewelry, clothing and toys from more than 100 artisans along with live musical performances.
Stoweflake’s Balloon Festival
In 2005, I took my first hot air balloon ride during the Stoweflake Hot Air Balloon Festival held each July in Stowe, Vermont. Over 25 professional balloon pilots and visitors of all ages had gathered at the grounds of the Stoweflake Mountain Resort & Spa (800/253-2232) for the annual weekend-long festival, which consists of two sunrise and two sunset launches.
From the ground before take-off, I watched other balloons launch and transform the sky from blue into a medley of color while I helped set up the resort’s balloon, Spirit of Stoweflake. Chuck Baraw, the resort’s president, is a licensed hot air balloon pilot who has hosted the event since the mid-80s, after realizing the popularity of his new hobby. He and his brother Stu take turns piloting Spirit during the festival launches, and on other weekends when guests of the resort charter private flights.
Only a few people can fit in a balloon at a time, so even though about five or six people helped inflate the balloon, only three of us ascended into the air. The experience of being in flight aboard a hot air balloon is ethereal: you have a bird’s eye view of the landscape and a sense of overwhelming calmness. It is remarkably quiet in the air, except for the moments when the pilot releases more hot air into the balloon, producing a loud swooshing sound.
The direction of the flight depends on the wind, although the altitude can be controlled by changing the temperature in the envelope. We floated for about 30 minutes, the typical length of a ride, and landed on a neighboring lawn, where the “chase vehicle” met us and the crew deflated and packed up the balloon.
Even if you don’t have the opportunity—and at festivals, most people don’t— to ride in a balloon, or the desire (fear of heights, small spaces), watching the cluster of balloons blast off into the air is a pretty neat sight. Besides, there’s more to do than just watch.
At Stoweflake’s evening launches, tents are set up across the resort’s lawn featuring displays from local businesses, souvenirs, complimentary mini-facials and $1/per minute massages by the resort’s massage therapists. Children have their own supervised activity corner, complete with games, arts and crafts, and a moonwalk. There’s also plenty of food, drink, and entertainment. At this year’s festival, a local band covered well-known songs as some adults danced and sang along to the music. A number of tables and chairs sit under the tents, but in good weather families might prefer to lie out on the lawn beneath the open sky.
2006 marks the 20th anniversary of Stoweflake’s Hot Air Balloon Festival, and the resort’s planning to make it a bigger event than usual, perhaps even inviting a celebrity guest…stay tuned.
Private Balloon Flights
You don’t have to be, say, Richard Branson to enjoy a hot air balloon ride. If there’s no festival going on, many companies and independent pilots will take your family for a ride in a balloon, for a price.
The U.S. Hot Air Balloon Team (610/469-0782), a Pennsylvania-based business, will plan your hot air balloon flight and will travel to wherever you’ll be for your next vacation or special occasion. They also host numerous tours throughout the Pennsylvania region and specialty tours in Austria, France, Japan, Switzerland, and New Zealand, depending on the season.
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